Evidence and Ideas for Change Tackling DC-area housing challenges through regional collaboration
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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When it comes to affordable housing, it’s not always the case that the interests of residents with low and moderate incomes are at odds with the interests of developers or employers. At least not in the Washington region which I call home.

Last month, officials from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia adopted regional targets on housing production, location, and affordability to address together the area’s housing challenges. The leadership shown by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) in advancing these 10-year targets follows a year of careful study and knowledge building with housing advocates, local officials, and the business community.

The Urban Institute is proud to have played a role in building that shared knowledge. With financial support from the Greater Washington Partnership and JPMorgan Chase, Urban experts Margery Austin Turner, Leah Hendey, Maya Brennan, Peter Tatian, and Kathryn Reynolds recently issued a report that puts concrete numbers to the region’s housing challenge. It also makes the case that by adopting a shared regional strategy for achieving a healthy housing market, we can produce shared economic prosperity that benefits all Washington-area residents. The COG’s bold action shows what’s possible when businesses lend support to developing affordable housing and advocates lend support for greater housing production to meet increasing demand.

With this growing consensus, the Washington area can avoid some of the challenges that unfettered growth has brought to places such as Seattle. King County Executive Dow Constantine acknowledged that his city’s rapid growth has brought far greater consequences for the housing market than anyone anticipated. “Plan ahead for housing,” he told NPR last year. “Recognize that housing is going to become more expensive, and protect the people who already live in the communities.”

And that’s exactly what the Washington region has the opportunity to do right now; we can get out ahead of a housing crisis that could ultimately undermine our future economic growth and prosperity. According to the Urban analysis, achieving this will, in part, require adding 374,000 housing units by 2030 to keep pace with the economic growth rate currently projected by the COG. Forty percent of that housing would need to fall in the middle-cost range, with another 38 percent in the low-cost range.

Now the hard work begins. Developing more luxury housing will not serve the majority of people seeking a quality place to live that’s in a neighborhood of opportunity and fits their budget. Instead, local governments need to make targeted public investments and forge public-private partnerships that preserve existing housing that’s affordable for families with lower incomes. They should make it easier and more attractive for the private sector to produce more housing at moderate price levels. And regional leaders should take smart measures to protect both renters and homebuyers from discrimination and involuntary displacement.

I believe the Washington region has the capacity to shape an inclusive future. The good news is there’s increasing recognition among public, private, and nonprofit leaders that the path forward must involve the kind of coordinated action and tailored policies and investments for each community that Urban’s work suggests. And we’re poised to continue to provide the data and analysis that will help each jurisdiction find the path that’s going to best address their community’s needs.

In case you missed it…

The power of integrated care. In a new report, Urban tells the story of the first 30 years of Mary’s Center, a nationally recognized, federally qualified health center here in DC. It’s worth a read. We examine the center’s social change model, which takes an integrated care approach to the medical, social, and dual-generational educational needs of families in underresourced DC-area communities. We find that Mary’s Center has been integral to improving residents’ well-being by linking them to behavioral health, literacy, food assistance, and other services. However, staff told us they felt less capable of responding to homelessness and housing insecurity, given the “scarcity of affordable housing for people with low incomes” in the DC area. This reinforces the need for regional leaders’ coordinated action on the housing shortage. And Mary’s Center plans to do its part, too: addressing affordable housing will be a significant local advocacy priority in their future.

Research Areas Housing
Tags Housing affordability
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center Research to Action Lab
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV